Although I loath doing any kind of design work, one of my pet hates at the moment is still the term ‘Mobile First’. The idea from what I can gather is that web designers should make sure that all their content is designed for mobile devices and then can scale up for desktops.

I don’t mind the idea that designers should be trying to make their content available on as many platforms as possible- I think that’s great! It is simply the name that makes many designers think that Mobile devices are the new ‘desktop’.

For years websites have been designed with computer desktops in mind and now many  organizations are now scrabbling to redesign with ‘Mobile First’ principles.  I worry that the term will make designers concentrate on the mobile experience and not learn from the past mistake of designing for one audience. What happens when the next device comes along, do we redesign it for that?

I much prefer the term device agnostic, I think we should try to make sites work on as many devices as possible.

There are many devices I browse the web on more often than my mobile phone, some large some small:

  • TV
  • PS3
  • PSP
  • DS
  • Wii

Is having a small screen the only thing to take in to consideration? Many moons ago I helped design the JISC CETIS site and the thing I hate about it most isn’t the fact it doesn’t work on small screens but the fact I can’t browse it very well with a joypad/tv controller!


Tim · May 5, 2011 at 11:41 am

I’ll join your rant if I may…

Assuming that a website is “standards compliant” should it be the role of software/hardware designers to ensure that content is usable on their devices?

For example the web browser supplied with my mobile phone was horrendous but now I use Opera Mobile and on the whole it does a really good job of resizing the main text of a webpage to fit the screen width. It struggles with some websites but I suspect these haven’t been designed from a “device agnostic” point of view.

Are proprietary technologies such as Flash also part of the problem? When an entire website is presented in Flash it means I can’t access it on my mobile phone. But thinking about other audiences how does this affect a visually impaired user’s ability to “view” the website content using something like a screen reader?

David · May 6, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Yes, I think this is important because it is not all about how it looks on new devices but also how they will navigate…. touch screens are one thing but control pads and tv remotes are also on the rise, and who knows what Nintendo will announce at E3

Mark · May 6, 2011 at 3:32 pm

LOL. I disagree.

The point is to get designers to think the other way around because the capabilities of the desktop browsers and mobile browsers are different – as is the issue of filesizes, etc.

“Mobile First” simply means Progressive Enhancement and I think designers know this (I fear you’re coming from too deep in the developer/code monkey arena, mate). Mobile First means focusing on the essentials for a mobile context then scaling up for larger devices. If you read up on the articles by the people banging this drum you’ll see that they actually are talking ‘device agnostic’ as they are championing a technique that designs and build for one web…rather than “mobile web” and “desktop web”, which we all know doesn’t exist.

I don’t think any web designer worth their gravy would ever start to view the issue as ‘mobile matters more than desktop’. Mobile First is an approach that enables designs to be fluid across devices. It’s just that it centres the First Stop on mobile as there the restrictions lie – ie. build for those restrictions…screen size, image size, scripting, etc – then adapt for larger screens wrt to sizes and layouts, etc.

David · May 6, 2011 at 4:11 pm

This is exactly why I hate the term. You’ve validated my point by saying that designers know that mobile first simply means progressive enhancement but then assuming bottleneck restrictions lie with mobile devices.

My point is the restrictions DO NOT lie with mobile, there is a increase in the many different ways people access the web. My wii remote is a restriction as are my twin desktop screens, mobile screen size, ps3 analogue sticks, the cheap screens HTC bung in the wildfire, my tv remote, etc etc. Simply I think we should not be assuming that restrictions are just mobile and that is why I don’t like the term.

Maybe I didn’t explain very well, this is with my developer hat off and web user hat on. My post says that the things you are talking about are great! But as a web user I get far more annoyed when browsing with my Wii remote more than I ever do with my mobile device. Yes I want progressive enhancement. No I don’t want the focus to be mobile.

    Mark · May 6, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    …and the focus isn’t mobile, mate. The focus is on adaptable design. It’s on all platforms, devices, screen sizes, etc.. It’s just that traditionally web design has been about designing for desktop then stripping away stuff.

    Starting with mobile (not focusing) simply means doing it the opposite way. Start small…then scale for bigger (including that shoddy Wii browser) 😉

      David · May 6, 2011 at 5:31 pm


      It’s not just about scaling to fit, there is so much more than that! What about the input device? The wii has a different input device.. what about the storage, wii only has so much internal storage, etc etc. These issues relate to adaptable design. You can’t start with mobile and ‘scale up’ to wii because they are completely different, as are many other devices.

      I agree its about stripping away, but there is such a bigger picture. I’m not a designer, but I would like to think that there is more to design than ‘How does it look’

        Mark · May 6, 2011 at 5:50 pm

        LOL! You progressively enhance everything, mate! Not just the pixels on the screen. I agree though, the issues of device capability, storage, etc on gaming consoles is something that isn’t in focus yet. Will it? I’m not sure. Given the work towards Internet TV and moving that method of interaction out of the set-top box (ie. console) & straight into the tellybox, I suspect console web browsers may get passed by. Only a guess though.

        However, right now the numbers when it comes to web use are firmly in the desktop and mobile arena. Desktop delivery has been pretty much comfortably covered but mobile delivery is still playing catch-up.

        Besides…isn’t the Wii input just a fancy mouse? 😉

          David · May 6, 2011 at 6:01 pm

          I would guess that internet tv will be a big thing, bigger than consoles, although bbc figures for iplayer on ps3 are crazy and keep increasing. Consoles are just an example, my whole rant is really about me only seeing an increase in devices that access the web and whatever the device most will be completely different to mobile.

          You can’t just progressivly enhance everything, how exactly do you progressively enhance something designed first for something completely different?

Mark · May 6, 2011 at 5:04 pm

🙂 yeah, I get where you’re coming from – it’s just that access to the web through handheld devices is (ignoring the “all the rage” aspect) is of more immediate importance for addressability IMHO.

When I say “restrictions” I’m simply talking about the support for CSS media queries, which is what underpins the adaptability for display on different screen sizes. My understanding is that support for this differs on desktop browsers but is pretty much standard across mobile…hence the “mobile first” approach.

And it’s not really about bottleneck restrictions, it’s more about the user paying for the data consumed on mobile – that’s why addressing size matters. If you think about the amount of stuff web designers throw into websites you can understand that this is something of key importance when it comes to delivering the same site to a mobile context.

Bob · May 6, 2011 at 5:32 pm

What Mark is trying to say – but failing so spectacularly so I thought I’d help to save him clogging up the thread – is that “Mobile First” does NOT mean “Focus on Mobile”. It is simply a different starting point for the design process than the one traditionally used with the web. All devices are focused on…you’re just starting from a different position.

PS. My name isn’t really Bob.

David · May 6, 2011 at 5:44 pm

I’ve really enjoyed this thread..

..and I’m not against starting from a different position, just as my post says I worry that the term will make designers concentrate on the mobile experience and forget the bigger picture. Mobile is a drastically different position to many devices I browse the web on.

Comment threads like this should ensure otherwise 🙂

    Mark · May 6, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Enjoyed it myself (and so has Bob). Thanks for starting it! I like the idea of this place. Good work, dude! 🙂

    PS. Only the shit web designers will ignore the bigger picture. That won’t be because of a term like “Mobile First” though. It’ll be because they’re shit.

David · May 6, 2011 at 6:04 pm

We are basically saying the same thing 🙂

    Mark · May 6, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    Heh. Yep. I realise I’ve kinda contradicted myself a little in places with the use of the word focus. That’s what happens when I’m thinking of being focused on everything. :}

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